Monday, February 4, 2013

Writing, Creativity and Critique: A Conversation

Silence Red 7  42x42" oil/cold wax on panel  © 2013 Janice Mason Steeves

Two weeks ago, Rebecca Crowell and I decided to write a co-blog post in a conversational format, about Visual Language and the Art of Critique.  That conversation sparked many thoughtful comments, some of which were posted here on my blog and some of which were sent to me personally. Two of my writer friends, Sandra Campbell and Kim Echlin wrote comments about the interconnections between intuition, technique and critique that I felt were too important to be hidden away in the comments section of the blog post.  I asked them if we could continue this conversation about how writer's work with feedback.

Sandra Campbell's novel Getting to Normal ( was NOW Toronto magazine’s choice for best books 2001. Her new work, The Pig and the Soprano, inspired by the life of Georgina Stirling, is a tale of the 19th century soprano who dared ambition and desire. Her pet pig is the narrator. Sandra's memoir, Conspiracy, explores love, loss and grief as experienced through music and visual art. Her writing workshops focus on the dynamics of body, memory, imagination and relaxation in the creative process. Sandra Campbell lives in Toronto. 

Kim Echlin is a  novelist, translator, editor and teacher. She is the author of Elephant WinterDagmar’s Daughter and Inanna: From the Myths of Ancient Sumer. Her 2009 novel, The Disappeared, was a nominee for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the winner of the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize. She has a Ph.d. in English literature. Kim Echlin lives in Toronto.

Kim: I like the idea of revealing ideas through dialogue, showing the unwinding toward them and showing them as process. (I think of how often Virginia Woolf's essays use letters and conversation as a structure). I have a long relationship with Sandra C. in which we read for each other. She is a dear friend, but also my "writing partner." One of the things that has evolved is something we call freefall response. (This does not have the associations of the word critique). When we do this we simply say what worked for us, what we did not fully grasp, where we wish for more. In this way we deepen our thought about the stories and characters and are free to go with each other's freefall response or not. It is a very expanding way to critique and its goal is to deepen. I find that as I become more conscious of what I am doing through this process, the technique follows. The technique must be there, and Sandra and I have often studied other writers to pick up their "writing tricks" or stylistic devices--rhythms, imagery, sentence lengths, rhetoric, that sort of thing.
Sandra: Love this conversation and apologies for being so late to it. I'm Kim's writing partner and I wanted to add to her comments the idea of the power of witness, especially in a work's early stages. Writers work alone-- and in early stages, most of us are fumbling in the murky underworld of the unconscious, not quite sure where we're going, just following the words that find themselves on our pages. Wayson Choy called the result of this fumbling 'the first vomit of creation'. A trusted person to witness it as evidence of the writer-at-work is powerful. It gives me the courage to keep on groping, to keep on being a beginner until at some point, within my ongoing conversation with my reader and my pages I come to a deeper conceptual understanding of what I'm about. Kim and I have done this for each other countless times over the years. The process enables me to maintain my faith that eventually, I'll find the way to tell the story exactly as it should be told.
Kim: Some more thoughts about the interconnectedness of intuitive creativity (and critique) and technique. One of the things Sandra and I have done is to study the masters together, both for the fun and pleasure of it, and to learn. For example, I was having difficulty pushing one of my stories through a long time span and together we studied some of Alice Munro's stories which frequently span decades. We identified her techniques. Studying and discussing together is fun, but there is more to it. I sometimes go "deeper" in the presence of another interested and kindred spirit. For me, this is the core of teaching, and likely critique. To be together in the exploration. Unexpectedly a friend who has returned to painting after some years away showed me some portraits she was doing and together we appreciated them. She said she was dissatisfied with an eye in one and could not figure out how to fix it. Together we examined some Gaugin eyes (he is one of her favourite painters). I have no training in art but I can appreciate and listen. I found our exchange, writer/painter/technique/intuition/relooking at a master very rich. Creative sharing may be one of our most profound forms of humanity as it asks us to be present to each other.

Janice: I love the dialogue that has been created here and the similarities in the writing/painting processes. Thanks for this.  I'm wondering about the importance of trust in the process. 

 Kim:  Trust is delicate. Takes time. Is very beautiful. The trust I feel in Sandra's reading for me begins in a "truly, madly, deeply" loving of each other's unique artistic process. A question is: What do I see? Followed by: What is not visible yet?

When Sandra reads for me, I listen to what she has understood and felt. If she has not "got" something, then likely it is not clear enough. We often deepen the psychology of our characters and plots by asking for more. Being interested, asking why,is central to trust, and you must trust to the bone marrow that just as you will find your artistic answers, the person you are working with will too.

A funny note: Sometimes Sandra will respond with something that I instantly reject (to myself). I have learned to trust that rejection as something I must really go back to and carefully consider when I am ready. My own resistances are sometimes the most important parts of a manuscript's necessary work. I use the word, aporia, which means something like "necessary confusion." Going into the aporia is essential to going deeper.

Jean Vanier tells a wonderful story about going to his father when he was very young and telling him that he wanted to take an unconventional route, something his father might not approve of. But his father responded, "I trust you."  Jean Vanier said that this initial act of confidence was important to his risk-taking throughout his life.

 Sandra: Creative sharing is wonderful. And it doesn't happen without a level of trust, or at the very least, a sense of safety that what one offers will be received/respected --not as gospel or dogma, but simply as one person's subjective experience. I think that the acceptance of subjectivity in perception is fundamental to creative sharing, an understanding that there is no right way to perceive a work in question-- that the uniqueness of our response is what is valuable and interesting. Then with any luck a dialogue may emerge from these differences. Listening is fundamental to this dialogue. Listening with the ear of the heart as the Benedictines say; listening to 'see' the other's experience, listening to enter into to the world of the other.  So very different than listening to respond with 'the right answer'--as we were trained in school.  But when this happens, I'm can arrive at a new place, and sometimes, the vista astounds.

Janice: I hear you both saying that there needs to be a balance between intuition and technique and how crucial it is in your processes to have your work witnessed.

Janice: I have one more question.  Both of you are or have been writing teachers.  Given the importance of a trusting relationship in the critique process, how can that be achieved or facilitated in a classroom or workshop?

Kim: There is a great deal that is intuitive about  teaching. And like the artistic process, everyone teaches from their own individuality and unique voice.  When I teach, I don't use the words critique or criticism. I tell the students that I will respond to their work and when we workshop I ask the class for their responses. Before a workshop begins--every single meeting--I remind the student who is presenting his or her work:

 "We will do our best to respond to your work, to let you know what we appreciated and if there are places where we feel we would have liked more or did not quite understand." 

Sometimes the students laugh at me repeating this but even that creates some humour and fun and underlines what we are sharing together.

 I must add though that teaching too is an evolving process. Some students are ready for technical work, others are not, so how it unfolds depends on the person. When I'm not sure, I ask the student, directly, but one on one (not in front of the class):  

Are you getting the kind of feedback you hoped for? If not, what would you like?

 In answer to this question I've had everything from, I want help with my verbs to I just want to feel supported. 

I think it is always worth it to ask.

Sandra: Trust requires a sense of psychological/emotional safety, so like Kim, I don't use the word critique, but response or feedback. To me a writer without readers is a diarist or a journal-writer and not a story-teller and that writers/readers together are engaged in a co-creative process of story-telling. In all this I talk about subjectivity--what I see/hear/sense may not be the same as what you see/hear/sense etc. and that's the mystery/wonder of it all.
In class, I try to model the feedback process so that students have a sense of how to do it in a constructive way. I too ask the writer to lead, as in is there something in particular you'd like to focus on. I stress that readers are not to ask personal questions regarding content. For example, did x, y, or z happen to you? 
I ask the reader to begin the process by identifying something in the text that they liked/ or that engaged them-- a sentence, an idea, a character, a description. Then they can move on to areas of concern/ difficulties.  I ask readers to avoid questions, such as why did you do this?  Or directions, such as I think you should do this. Instead, the reader gives their subjective response, "The setting you created gave me a vivid sense of place."  and the writer is asked to listen only--take notes too, but without any requirement to respond to what is said. In fact I encourage a process where the writer says nothing, but merely absorbs the comments. Its important the writer doesn't feel they have to defend their work.

I always follow up a feedback session with a class on "What Next" which is the art/craft of revision, based on the fact that all story-writing is re-writing. A sense of humour and personal war stories always help.

Janice: Thanks for this. I loved your thoughts about critique/feedback and especially the idea that sharing, listening, and being truly present for one another is the deepest form of communication.


  1. This is great stuff--thanks Sandra and Kim, and Jan. I love the part about "aporia" which rings very true, and not just for writing/painting but for life in general! Also you have put forth some very good info about establishing trust in a group or with an individual. I find it so interesting that your remarks apply well to both writing and painting.

  2. I know Rebecca, I was delighted to learn this too.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on the creative process. At the moment I am reading Sandra Djwa's biography of the poet P.K. Page (1916-2010), a creative woman who painted and wrote poetry - "Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page. She saw her life as a quest, saying at one point "One's own core forms, assumes weight, grows its lode. And where that points, one must go." (p. 172)When you are teaching, if you can give students at least a little glimpse of that lode, you will have given a big gift.

  4. Thanks Jane. That sounds like a wonderful book and a beautiful thought.